Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Neuroexistentialism a reply

A response to some of the things neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland said in her New Scientist interview recently (30 November 2013, No. 2945, pp 30--31). Also brings in Ian McGilchrist's views on brain hemisphericity from The Master and His Emissary.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Renovating the Blog

Hi all --

A brief note to say I'll be posting here again in the New Year. Look forward to seeing you, and I'm sorry for the long absence! Meanwhile, check out Ian McGilchrist's excellent book The Master and His Emissary, which I will be reviewing once I've finished it.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Phantom Tourette's?

I watched a fascinating programme on Channel Four last night about a group of rather unfortunate teenage girls from Le Roy, upstate New York who’d been suffering from Tourette’s syndrome like tics since October 2011. These girls all went to the same High School, and all of them, despite initial claims to the contrary, had troubled lives of one kind or another. Medical opinion was that they were suffering from as psychogenic condition known as conversion disorder, where stress triggers a psychological and unconscious imitation of a real illness. There was significant resistance to this diagnosis, and the parents and teenagers went to the national media to appeal for an alternative explanation. Some of the girls also put their stories on YouTube.

Many of the parents were concerned that there was some kind of infection or environmental pollutant at the High School, and a popular theory was that the girls had picked something up on the sports field. Then it was discovered that there had been a toxic spillage on the nearby railway line, back in the 1970s. At the same time, another doctor and expert in childhood illness contacted the girls because he believed that their symptoms were caused by a streptococcal infection of the throat that can sometimes cause neurological effects (This latter development confirming the adage that for every expert opinion, there’s an equal and opposite expert opinion.) But he treated some of the girls with antibiotics, and their symptoms seemed to recede.

This was explained by the neurologists who supported the conversion disorder diagnosis as the placebo effect, which may well be right, because most of the girls being treated for conversion disorder seemed to be in recovery too. But who knows, really.

What interested me was the resistance to the ‘psychogenic’ diagnosis, which seems to have been interpreted by many of the girls and their parents as a kind of dismissal. One of the experts on the TV shows they went on explained that even though no neurological cause had been found, it was a neurological diagnosis because it’s all neurological. But so far a convincing neurological process for conversion disorder hasn't been found. The Wikipedia entry states;

"A number of [neuroimaging] studies have been performed, including some which suggest that blood flow in patients brains may be abnormal while they are unwell. These have all been too small to be confident of the generalisability of their findings, however, so no neuropsychological model has been clearly established"

And there’s the rub. In this age of neurobiological reduction, where the mind is supposedly reducible to functional neurobiology, the theory says that at some level we can explain what’s going on purely in terms of what’s happening in the brain. And yet in practise, a sort of methodological parallelism remains, and there does seem to be a distinction between ‘psychogenic’ illness and neurologically based conditions like Tourette’s or epilepsy; and in fact, conversion disorders, where a person unconsciously ‘mimics’ the symptoms seem to me to highlight this distinction. Maybe, then, the search for a common neurobiological denominator's basically futile (or at least not the only possible approach), and we actually need to start thinking (again) in terms of minds, selves and consciousness....

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Consciousness and Reality in the New Scientist

Fascinating series of articles in this week’s New Scientist with the collective title 'What is Reality?' (29 September 2012, pp. 35—47). This ranges over a series of basically metaphysical questions. These articles are full of fairly wild speculations; the SF author Phil Dick even gets a look in, with his rather neat statement that reality is that which, if you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. Questions include; is matter real? Is everything made of numbers? Is space-time pixillated? And most relevantly for this blog, ‘does consciousness create reality?’ (pp. 42—3).

The latter article looks at idealist versions of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, including Von Neumann’s suggestion that observation is the action of the conscious mind, and Max Planck’s 1931 statement; ‘I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.’ (quoted p. 42). A number of people, the article says, object to this, including the philosopher or physics Matthew Donald who questions the existence of consciousness and advocates the ‘many minds’ theory. This is related to the ‘many worlds’ interpretation of quantum theory and argues that an individual observing a quantum system sees all the many states, but each in a different mind, each of which arises (somehow) from the physical brain. These myriad minds share a past and future, but cannot communicate with each other (Or maybe they can -- see Anthony Peake's speculations).
Another article examines the age-old problem of telling whether reality ‘is’ an illusion or not, which points out how hard it is to refute the idea that consciousness is all there is (contrast this with Donald's scepticism!) The article examines dualist, idealist, panpsychist and physicalist positions, and ends with asking ‘how can we know?’ (p.45). How indeed? Well worth a look.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Where is the mind?

Interesting piece in this week’s New Scientist (Heaven, D., 1 Sept 2012, p. 9) entitled ‘The mind isn’t where we thought it was.’ Quote;

‘[the mind’s location] remains as elusive as ever, according to neurologists who have demonstrated that a patient retains a sense of self despite lacking three regions of the brain thought to be essential for self-awareness.’
According to a large number of neuroimaging studies, these regions are the insular cortex, anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex.
Patient R has lost brain tissue after encephalitis of the brain, including chunks in all three areas. The neuroscientist who examined him stated that ‘patients with no [insular cortex] should be like zombies.’ (op. cit, p. 9). Rudrauf’s team did a number of tests that seemed to confirm he had a strong self-concept. In light of this, the article admits that ‘Self-awareness and other high-level cognitive functions probably do not relate to the brain in a simple way.’ (p. 9), although they also quote another neuroscientist who believes that these three areas remain essential, and points out that the patient still retains some tissue in the necessary areas.
It’s probably a mistake to generalize or theorize too much from one patient; on its own, for example, this example cannot stand as anything like ‘proof’ of, say, mind-body dualism. But a lot depends upon how we view the ‘modular’ theory of mind. According to an extreme version of this currently popular view, human personality can essentially be understood in terms of very complex and interconnected networks of functionally distinct brain-regions that, rather as in phrenology, handle specialized aspects of mind. This is apparently supported by neuroimaging studies, which show that metabolic activity differs in different brain-regions according to which cognitive tasks are assigned.

However, and especially in light of cases like this, this is not the only possible interpretation of the data. Another possibility is that human minds and personalities consist of generalized capacities that arise from the whole organism and express themselves locally via specific functional regions. When said region is damaged, and in at least some cases, the generalized capacity would still be there but would express itself in different ways via whatever tissue remains. Some studies of memory recovery after brain damage and neuroplasticity also suggest this to me.
According to this theory, it’s futile to search for a specific location or locations of mind, consciousness or personality because they are not simply expressions of brain function, but of far more general capacities of the organism. To put it another way, said capacities do not reside in specific tissues, but in terms of broader organizing principles that operate rather like fields (See Brian Goodwin’s book How the Leopard Changed its Spots, London, 1994 for an overview).
We can take either a conservative or a more radical interpretation of this sort of approach. A conservative approach would state that mind, brain and consciousness are simply expressions of the whole organism, and nothing more (See chapters six and seven of my book for more on this organismic approach). A more radical interpretation would plump for something like a filter or permissive theory a la William James or Henri Bergson, which suggests that the brain or organism simply ‘filters’ or permits a consciousness that extends beyond the organism and possibly saturates the entire cosmos. I must admit that I teeter between these interpretations; possibly, also, they’re not strictly incompatible with each other. But at the very least, cases like patient R seem to me significantly anomalous in terms of current theories to justify further study.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Olympic Games and Transpersonal Physiology

I’ve greatly enjoyed watching the London 2012 Olympics from the perspective of a sports-coach (my day job), and also from the point of view of someone deeply interested in personal and spiritual development. You might think that sporting achievement has very little to do with consciousness studies, but you’d be wrong. This became clear to me after reading Michel Murphy’s seminal book, The Future of the Body, which can be seen as an epic natural-history of what Murphy terms ‘supernormal’ capacities in human beings.

Murphy notes that “the worlds of physical adventure and sport dramatize our capacity for self-exceeding,” and goes on to say that “…the pain, risk and sacrifice many people accept for the sake of sport all demonstrate our human capacity and drive to new levels of functioning.” (p. 415). He goes on to list a host of beneficial physical changes produced by exercise, which include a range of cardiovascular and circulatory benefits, greater bone mass, decreased degeneration of joints and ligaments, increased muscular strength, improved reaction times, decreased body fat, improved hormonal balance, a strengthened immune system, etc. There’s also a spectrum of positive psychological effects, including improved academic performance, self-confidence, emotional stability, memory, perception, self-control and decreased depression, hostility, phobias, stress response, and work errors.
But for me the really interesting part of Murphy’s discussion concerns sport as transformative practice. Murphy notes "several kinds of extraordinary experience reported by sports people, including exalted states of mind and metanormal movement abilities."(op.cit, p. 443). Sports allow the development of sustained and focussed attention, just like meditation and yoga. And the intense concentration that sporting excellence requires often produces a state of mind that’s very similar to a meditative state; this is the state of ‘flow’ described by Mikhail Csikzentmihalyi, where one moves to the limit of one’s capacities, but not beyond. And flow is synonymous with good health.
I am not one who sees the ‘mind’ and the ‘body’ as radically polarized and separate, as in Cartesian Dualism; and I have suggested before that such a contention has been unviable since at least William James, and seems increasingly so today, as the mapping of consciousness to corresponding physiological states develops apace. This position does not entail a reductive physicalism; in fact, I like William Blake’s  proverb of hell that states that  "man has no body distinct from his soul: for that called Body is a portion of the soul discern’d by the five senses, the chief inlets of the soul in this age" ( from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell c. 1790. Quoted in Murphy, and plenty of other places).
 What this statement implies to me is that which we dub ‘consciousness’ can be seen as  continuous with the body  and the rest of the world, and radically embodied; for this reason, I favour the ‘fleshy’ phenomenology described by Merleau-Ponty, who speaks of the human body as “the fabric into which all objects are woven” and speaks of phenomenological reality in terms of interwoven fabrics and “tissues” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962; quoted in Gill, 2010, p. 43—4).
This means (and Murphy’s survey of transformative techniques supports this ) that mental and spiritual development proceed via the body, and via bodily transformation; such changes do not take place in some mysterious ‘other-realm’ basically distinct from the fleshy reality we inhabit.  And when we achieve such transformations, we reach beyond our individual weaknesses and fallibilities, onto a whole new level that often seems to go beyond the everyday, confining self (hence the ‘transpersonal physiology’ of this blog’s title). And this seems to me exemplified by the Olympics and especially the upcoming Paralympics. Watch and be inspired.

Gill, J. (2010) Deep Postmodernism, Humanity Books.
Merleau-Ponty (1962) Phenomenology of Perception, New York.
Murphy, M. (1992). The Future of the Body. Tarcher Putnam.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Is Colin conscious?

If you accept some versions of panpsychism, then you think that everything in the Universe contains a latent grain of consciousness. So is Colin the Rock conscious? If so, can you think of a test to empirically demonstrate this? In other versions of panpsychism, such as the variant proposed by Alfred North Whitehead, Colin is not conscious because he’s an aggregate object and not a true individual, but the atoms of which he’s composed can be said to be individuals and therefore be composed of ‘moments of experience.’  Therefore, Colin's atoms can have crude experiences. Again, how might this be empirically demonstrated?
If, on the other hand, you think that Colin does not or cannot have even the dimmest spark of consciousness, how could you demonstrate that? One might say that the burden of proof lies with those who claim that Colin has experiences, and that the principle of parsimony suggests that, all things being equal, one shouldn’t assume something has invisible attributes without a good reason. But if you think this, how do you respond to Galen Strawson’s arguments that physicalism entails panpsychism?
Or you might decide to use Popper and the positivist’s principle of falisifiability i.e. claim that a theory can only be scientific if it is falsifiable. Since we cannot falsify the claim that Colin is dimly conscious (or that Colin entirely lacks consciousness, for that matter), both theories are, according to the positivists, essentially meaningless.
But if this is so, then this places a strict limit on the scientific search for consciousness. If a bacterium possesses conscious awareness, but we also cannot prove it, then that’s surely an important fact about nature we’re neglecting. We should also recall that this sort of reasoning is exactly what led a number of behaviourists to ignore human minds and consciousness for half a century….